Steps, not-steps, promises and the art of metaphysical hitchhiking
In connection with Advent and Christmas, two weeks ago (in Episode 10) I explored with you something connected to an idea found in Ernst Bloch’s 1972 book called, “Atheism in Christianity”, namely, that within the Biblical text as a whole there continues to exist a meaningful “Where-to” towards which they point and which is still to come (the basic meaning of the word “Advent”). It’s important to be clear that this “Where-to” can exist even for those of us, like Bloch, who are now sympathetic to an atheistic world-view.
But, whenever an atheistically inclined person like Bloch or me starts talking about the existence of some kind of “Where-to” it remains tempting to think that, just like the theist of old, we still have in mind some clear end-point (telos) which we can envisage and describe; in short, to think that we believe we have hidden up our sleeves some kind of blueprint of that which is assuredly “to come”. However, as I hope the title of this podcast makes clear, I’m one of those people who - certainly in philosophical, religious and political contexts - rejects the idea of making blueprints in favour of making only footprints. Or, to put it another way, I’m someone who is concerned with outcomes rather than with realising dogmatically predetermined objectives.
So, what do I have in mind when I start talking about the existence of some kind of “Where-to” to which Biblical stories, such as those we tell at Advent and Christmas, can still meaningfully point and which might be said still to be coming?
Well, in a nutshell, it is simply to have in mind an appropriately confident sense of the general direction and horizon towards which it seems best to travel and also to have adopted a general minimalist form of life and style of movement that seems appropriately suited to help us take steps in that same general direction.
Drawing on the things I’ve explored with you in earlier episodes let me briefly expand on this just a little.
For me the general direction of travel, and horizon towards which we are travelling, is glimpsed or discerned whenever we engage in any action that seems genuinely orientated towards the making of a more cosmopolitan, democratic, just and loving world in which all are guaranteed the possibility of being tomorrow what we are not today. It’s the Biblical call summed up in the words uttered by Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh: “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1). You will recall that Bloch, citing the radical, sixteenth-century German reformer, Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489-1525), says that this call to freedom “Rang out to all the oppressed, ‘without difference or distinction of race or faith’” (“Atheism in Christianity”, Verso Press, London 2009, p. 12).
And the form of life and style of movement that helps a person to take confident enough steps in that general direction is, at least in the liberal, freethinking religious Unitarian tradition to which I belong, based upon the kind of footprints that were consistently made by the human Jesus and Socrates. To recap:
With regard to the human Jesus it is to learn from him a way of being in the world which is always concerned to dissolve all of religion’s former supernatural God-talk, superstitious and apocalyptic ideas into a simple, if infinitely challenging, existential, ethical demand to show justice and love to our neighbours, enemies and all creation, right here, and right now.
With regard to Socrates it is to learn from him a way of being in the world which helps people, through taking the disciplined steps of the Socratic method, freely to exercise the human faculty of critical reason always to be seeking out new clues and empirical evidence about how the world is (and isn’t) and our current place and orientation within it.
However, experience has taught me that for many people this remains a far too minimalist, woolly and vague liberal project, certainly not one solid-enough that they might be persuaded to make some kind of long-term, loyal vow or commitment to it. I have heard innumerable times that before any such vow or commitment could be made, a clear blueprint, a full manifesto or even creed is what is required. To put this in colloquial language I realise that many people want to be absolutely clear beforehand exactly where it is that they are going and exactly what kind of people they and others are going to be when they get there — in short they want a full description and the terms and conditions of the future kingdom or republic of heaven right here, and right now.
But I continue strongly to deny that this latter solution is either possible or desirable, and I can best show why via three short steps that, in themselves, also help to indicate both the general direction of travel and a form of life and style of movement I have in mind that can help move a person in that general direction.
The first step is a consideration of a well-known word found in the French language. The second step is a consideration of the commitment/vow or promise we make when we enter into what we intend to be any life-long relationship with someone or some institution or tradition. The third step is a consideration consider what happens when we hitch-hike.
So, step one (and the pun is intended) concerns the French word “pas” which most of you will know has two meanings. The first is straightforwardly a “step”, as in a taking a step forward. But it also has the meaning of “not” as in the phrase “Je n’avance pas.” This literally means “I do not move forward, not even a step.” On this account the word “pas” as meaning “not” (ne) is simply shorthand for “(not a) step” (John D. Caputo, “What would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church”, Baker Academic, 2007, p. 141). In his book, “What would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church”, the contemporary philosopher of religion, John D. Caputo, notes about this that:
“Thus pas means “step/not”; it means to take a step but then again not to, to be following in someone’s steps but then again not to. Steps cannot be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. To take steps in a certain direction, to be en route, to follow in someone’s steps cannot be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses” (ibid. p. 43).
The truth of this shows up very clearly if now we consider taking steps towards another person. This is because the relationship we have with them is always a journey we can never fully complete. Formal marriage/civil partnership ceremonies show this up particularly well because when we say to our prospective life-partner, “I do”, we say it, not simply to whom the person is, or to whom we think this person is, but “to whomsoever or whatever this person is to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of [us]” (ibid. p. 45, my emphasis). It is vitally important to see that this risk is constitutive of the vow and commitment. Without it the vow and commitment mean nothing.
There are other examples of this we could examine, such as vows or promises made when joining a religious community, but, in Caputo’s felicitous phrase, they all show
“how deeply not is embedded in the path, how deeply the impasse is embedded in the pass, how deeply the impossible is embedded in the possible – almost to the point that, far from being a simple play on words . . . it is beginning to look like a law, and one very close to the religious heart” (ibid p. 45).
OK, for our third step, let’s now turn to the ancient, if disappearing art of hitch-hiking. To hitchhike successfully is to be proactive in a way that works with, rather than against, the grain of that which is constantly being given. By this I mean that complex intra-active, energetic flows and communicative influences are always-already shaping the world. Here’s how the contemporary environmental philosopher, Freya Mathews, runs with this thought. She thinks, as do I, that all agents, human or non-human - and whether they are aware of it or not - are always-already acting as
“. . . a kind of metaphysical hitchhiker, catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for her destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker's communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker's own plans and those of those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither the hitchhiker nor the driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations” (Freya Mathews: Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture, 2005, SUNY Press, NY, p. 39).
On the one hand, the metaphysical hitchhiker is respectfully allowing the world to be as it is and she shows this respect by not seeking to turn back processes and the inner unfolding dynamics already under way. However, on the other hand, through this kind of letting things be, she is also able to be proactive in seeking her own fulfilment through engagement with already existing unfoldings (ibid. p. 39).
OK. In order to bring this episode to a kind of conclusion - although I hope you see that in this way of being in the world there can be no arrival at any final conclusion or Last Word - let me now recap what I think these three steps help us to see.
Firstly, since no step we take can ever be protected absolutely from detours, road blocks, misleading road signs, false steps and impasses, we need to let go of the idea that we can ever articulate beforehand exactly what the journey into the future, or indeed the future destination itself, will assuredly be like.
Secondly, since every true vow or promise needs to take into account that we are always-already required to promise to be loyal to someone or something that is always-already not-yet, we need to let go of the idea that we should ever make any promises, vows or commitments to people, projects or institutions that claim from the outset that they are somehow already finished and complete, and that they have all the answers to the pressing questions of life.
Thirdly, since the intra-action in the world between ourselves, our partners, ideas, exemplars (such as Jesus and Socrates) and institutions of all kinds is always-already to be engaged in a kind of hitchhiking (where everything is always-already opening up to ever new detours and changes of mind, thought, ideas, direction etc. - some of which will be perceived to have been false steps and impasses from which, remember, we can never be protected - because of these things we need to let go of the idea that as individuals we are ever fully in control of where precisely we are heading or whom we are becoming.
Despite this, however, we need to remember that to be human is to remain a proactive agent and so we will always be acting out of certain current preferences and desires, the fulfilment of which will always require us to engage in some forethought and planning. That’s fine; I have no problem with acknowledging this. But I do have a problem with those people or traditions that think our current preferences and desires are already fixed, unchanging and final, and that our current planning and forethought springing out of those preferences and desires, can then be expressed in terms of final, predetermined blueprints.
This just seems to me to be utterly wrongheaded because even the most cursory study of the history humankind reveals that our preferences and desires can, and do change, and, as they change we intra-act in new and different ways with the world and, in consequence, our destination, and who we are individually and collectively, also changes. Again and again, together we find we are heading to a destination or horizon that neither we, the hitchhiker, nor the driver had previously entertained. Indeed, it becomes clear that, in the end, it’s impossible absolutely to delineate the hitchhiker from the driver.
But, as Caputo’s words will, I hope, have made clear, none of these steps we make alone or together can ever be insulated in an absolute way from missteps and sidesteps, and our paths cannot be protected from dead-ends. So how on earth are we to distinguish between missteps and sidesteps and the kind of steps that seem to us to right and which move us in what we feel is the right direction? Well, that can only achieved by those who find a way with a clean heart and full belief (pathos) to commit loyally to some kind of minimal, general sense of direction of travel and an associated minimalist, or basic form of life and style of movement that will help then navigate towards that horizon.
It’s only when one has these things in play that a person can be helped to gauge whether the step they have just made is helping them to pass through the world well or to enter into an difficult or even dangerous impasse, whether it helps move them towards that which is truly possible and desirable or is simply tempting them to walk towards what will prove to be impossible and undesirable.
But anything more than the minimalist approach I have set out here will, or so it seems to me, always turn out to be foolhardy and sometimes even very dangerous because predetermined blueprints nearly always close us off from the fundamental “Where-to” with which I began, namely, the genuine freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today; the kind of freedom which helps us meaningfully and creatively to live the kind of life expressed by Samuel Beckett in the most famous line from his play “Worstward Ho!”:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
WEDNESDAY EVENING CONVERSATION, 16TH DECEMBER 2020